Eating your way through the Bisenzio Valley

Five days exploring the region’s foodie traditions and top products

The Bisenzio Valley (Val di Bisenzio in Italian) is a varied region defined by its namesake river, which joins the Arno River in Signa, passing through Prato. Minor though the Bisenzio may be, running a course of around 45 kilometers, it’s been mentioned in some of Italian literature’s most illustrious texts, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Elettra. What the literary giants failed to mention is the lively area surrounding the river and its long tradition of fine living—in the form of food and wine. Here’s a starter pack of towns, traditions and tips for foodies exploring the region.

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Day One

Vernio

For your maiden voyage through the Val di Bisenzio, use Vernio as a starting point. The small town is the birthplace of the Zuccherini di Vernio, the first thing to tackle on your mouthwatering mission.

In layperson’s terms, Zuccherini are a more decadent, homemade version of a donut, with boring, processed glaze swapped out for the sugary quality of a beignet—but crunchier and as a coating, not a dusting. Oven-prepared, Zuccherini are particularly prevalent around the holiday season, in homes, bakeries and at myriad Christmas markets. These splurge-worthy snacks are far from the cucina povera tradition so common to Tuscany: due to the substantial amount of (expensive) sugar required, they’ve historically been viewed as an indulgence, the type of sweet you’d see served at wedding reception, baptism or other milestone event. Pull out all the stops and pair them with coffee or Tuscan dessert wine Vin Santo for dipping.

Polenta is another snack with strong ties to the area: usually held at the beginning of March, the Festa della Pulendina (also called the Festa della Polenta) has been running for over 400 years and commemorates a 1512 event, when the Bisenzio Valley faced famine, exacerbated by the invasion of Spanish troops at war with Florence. The Bardi nobles distributed free chestnut polenta, herring and dried codfish, which ended up saving much of the Vernio population. The festival features costumed parades, historical re-enactments and food stands, but save room for polenta whether you’re in town for the festival or not.

A niche event on Italian Father’s Day (which always lands on the Feast Day of Saint Joseph, March 19) is worth noting: the Fiera del Bestiame, or livestock festival, features food stands and traditional products as well as a livestock show, plus photography exhibitions and conferences focused on agricultural themes.

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Day Two

Cantagallo

Consider the area around Cantagallo, an approximately 25 minute drive from Vernio, for day 2. Begin by working up an appetite with a visit to the Rocca Cerbaia, a castle in ruins 400 meters above the Bisenzio river, reachable on foot via the CAI-Prato trail number 48, which begins a few hundred meters to the left after you’ve passed the old Cerbaia bridge on the Bisenzio, just outside the village of Carmignanello. Once the residence of the Alberti counts, a feudal family in Tuscany mentioned in all three sections of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the castle’s origins date back to 1100. Legend has it that the Supreme Poet himself requested to stay here while in exile from Florence, but was denied.

After your hike, dig in to a hearty, typical Tuscan meal in one of Cantagallo’s wineries or osterie: anything with wild boar is a safe bet. If your trip falls in the summertime, a Wild Boar Festival (Sagra del Cinghiale) traditionally runs on the first Sunday of July in the tiny community of Gavigno, put on by the town’s Pro Loco association.

Between October and December especially, this is an excellent spot to sample castagnaccio, a traditional chestnut-based cake: Cantagallo is a proud member of the national association of chestnut cities - plus, chestnuts are the ultimate “fall fruit” in Val di Bisenzio, as in much of Tuscany.

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Day Three

Migliana

Make your way to Migliana, a mountain town above Prato and an approximately 25 minute drive from Cantagallo: it’s actually a subdivision (frazione) of Cantagallo but merits a day or a few hours of its own.

Help yourself to a tasty platter of cold cuts and cured meats of the Bisenzio Valley, in Tuscan speak known uniformly as salumi, not to be confused with salami, which is only one type! Try pairing them with a glass of DOCG wine from the Carmignano area—which doesn’t technically belong to the Bisenzio Valley, but is part of the Prato province, and the top winemaking area for miles.

Migliana is also a “hive” of honey production, with producers from the area occasionaly competing in the annual Concorso dei Mieli Toscani, held in October during the Dolce Vernio festival. Pick up a few jars for your sweetest friends. Locals will steer you toward the historic Antico Forno Santi, a Migliana institution, for fresh schiacciata, biscuits and other sweets.

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Day Four

Montemurlo

Olive oil lovers can treat Montemurlo, roughly 30 minutes by car from Migliana, as a mecca year-round. Beginning with La Befana festivities (on January 6, Epiphany) and stretching out to the new oil celebrations, which usually take place on the third Sunday of November, the town is a hotbed for traditions associated with Tuscan “green gold”. The Festa dell’Olio was founded in 1999 and is run by the Associazione Il Borgo della Rocca, which organizes community initiatives throughout the calendar year.

If the Festa dell’Olio group isn’t organizing any events while you’re in town, organize a delicious meal or a visit at one of the member restaurants, farms, and wineries of the Filiera Corta Montemurlo association, a group of producers dedicated to keeping the distribution chain short and the relationship between consumer and producer very direct.

Sustainability and seasonal goodness are two key words in Montemurlo kitchens. Should your visit fall on a Thursday, pop by the public gardens adjacent to piazza Donatori di Sangue (via Fratelli Rosselli) between 8am and 1pm for the weekly “Campagna amica” market, which features foods, wines and oils with guaranteed farm-to-table traceability.

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Day Five

Prato

Welcome to Tuscany’s textile city, where tasty food is also part of the cultural tapestry. If you’re feeling bold and have a sweet tooth, start off your day in a bar-pasticceria with a strong coffee and a “Pesca di Prato”, or a “Prato peach.” No, this isn’t a finely cultivated fruit, but something much better, at least for dessert devotees: it’s a sweet with its origins in the second half of the 19th century, made from a stale bread-based dough, shaped like a peach split open and enriched with red syrup and caster sugar.

During the day, support sustainability by visiting one of the GranPrato project producers. This trailblazing group of Tuscans is a series of associations committed to using grains exclusively from the province of Prato in their products. Or, if you’re still on a sugar high from your morning peach, visit the iconic Biscottificio Antonio Mattei, affectionately known by locals as “La Mattonella” and the cream of the crop where cantuccini are concerned. These toasted almond, twice-baked cookies are one of Prato’s proudest exports (they’re also called “biscotti di Prato”), and beg to be dipped in Vin Santo.

Come dinnertime, your enthusiasm for traditional Tuscan fare may be waning by Day 6. You won’t be short on alternative choices: Prato is home to one of Europe’s largest Chinese populations, a Mandarin-speaking community that’s adding a whole new dimension to the local culinary scene. Many eateries are concentrated in the San Paolo area along via Pistoiese. Though you can find your fill of Chinese food at any time of year, December 22 celebrations of the Dongzhi Festival, Chinese winter solstice, is prime dumpling time.

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